In a memorable scene at the U.S. Open tennis tournament four years ago, Tiger Woods had the champagne ready. He had only just met Roger Federer, his partner in the sporting pantheon, after greatly admiring his work from afar. Now Woods had a choice seat at Arthur Ashe Stadium to watch Federer's title-match dismantling of Andy Roddick, and he shared some exuberant moments of celebration with Federer's future wife, Mirka Vavrinec.
Roddick wasn't too thrilled by Woods' favoritism, but then, he wouldn't understand. Few athletes would. As Federer and Woods downed a bit of the bubbly over a long post-match conversation in the bowels of the stadium, one got the sense that no other person belonged in that room.
"We learned that we are similar in many ways," Federer said at the time. "Tiger knew exactly how I felt on the court. He knows how it feels to be invincible at times."
How strange to see the two of them now, struggling to revive their careers. Federer's plight hardly compares to that of Woods, who had to withdraw from Sunday's final round of the Players Championship with a neck injury and has felt the sting of worldwide scorn for months. All the same, people don't quite recognize Federer's game these days.
Federer did win the Australian Open in magnificent fashion, and perhaps only the Grand Slam events can trigger a motivational surge at this stage of his life.
But he has become vulnerable to opponents he once dismissed. Despite holding match points at two of the tour's most prestigious stops, Indian Wells and Key Biscayne, he lost to Marcos Baghdatis and Thomas Berdych, respectively. Two weeks ago in Rome, a blatantly nervous Ernests Gulbis blew six match points to prolong the third set, yet Federer couldn't put him away. Then came Federer's shocking straight-set loss to Albert Montanes at the Estoril Open in Portugal.
It's unlikely Federer and Woods have much of a connection these days, for their lifestyles could not be more different. Woods was exposed as a serial philanderer while Federer happily travels everywhere with his wife and twin daughters. Federer is physically sound, while Woods faces the grim prospect of a pinched nerve or bulging disk.
What they share, for the first time, is the specter of doubt. The type only a major championship can erase.